Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Horror Tip: All Alone

Going to start of a new, hopefully, weekly feature on the blog called "Horror Tip". This will be tips of lesser known games, books, movies, etc with some kind of relation to horror. Hopefully it will give you all some entertainment tips! First out will be a small game called "All Alone".

Name: All Alone
Type: Game (Interactive Fiction)
Link: Info and download
All Alone is a short work of Interactive Fiction taking place in an apartment a rainy night. It is very atmospheric and I think it gives a good hint on what is possible with pure text in a game. Make sure that you play this game in a dark room and perhaps with some spooky ambient track in the background.

If you are new to Interactive Fiction (IF) then a guide can be found here. Basically IF games are text adventures and you type the actions you want to do. This gives a very special feel for the game and gives lots of options for the player in what actions can be done. It can also lead to annoying "guess the word" type of puzzles, but good IF games keep this to a minimum.

To play IF games, one almost always need an interpreter, which is a program that runs the game file. All Alone requires TADS 2, which can be downloaded here.

Hopefully this will get some people interested in IF and if you found this a good tip, then I will continue to give tips of more good horror IF games. We are also interested in hearing what you think of this new feature!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Obstacles continued

In this post I would like to expand on some of the things that where brought up in the last post on obstacles. I am going to go through some of the steps involved in coming up with an obstacles and problems encountered.

Normally what we start with is having some kind of general journey for player. This could be something like this (a lit more detailed though):

The player starts at the pirate island and must then steal a ship to get the jungle and rescue his loved one.

This is then built upon step by step and ends up as detailed designs of each level. Now lets say that I now have to design the levels inside the skull castle on pirate island. Because of story reasons I now need to fit in the following levels:
  • Treasure chamber
  • Torture room
  • Drinking hall
  • Fencing hall
When trying to fit these levels together I can do it in various ways. It could be a linear progression like:
Treasure chamber -> Torture room -> etc...
Or I could use some kind of hub structure. A way to do this is by having a great hall (acting as a hub) that all of levels connect to.

Designing the basics for these levels are by far easiest in the linear progression. Here one can have an obstacle blocking the path between the current and next level or it could be as simple as just reaching the end of the level. Adding an obstacle is easy because there are no real constraints and just about any type of puzzle fits as solution.

In the hub structure things get more complicated. Here there must be some obstacle in the great hall that require the player to visit all of the levels it connects to. A way to solve this is by spreading the solution to all of the levels, like a door that needs four keys. Another solution would be to have the levels relying on each other, for example to enter the torture room the golden spear from the treasure room is required.

In terms of gameplay experience these two solutions varies a quite a bit. The linear progression gives a very, uhm, linear feel, but allows for a more fine-tuned and scripted experience. The hub structure gives more freedom for the player to explore and a less linear experience, it is also harder to script. In the Penumbra games we use a mix of these two types, to give the game some variation and try to use the strengths of both types.

Coming up with puzzles for overcoming the obstacles also vary from the different types. In the linear progression it is simple to add multiple solutions, and it can be possible to let the player complete the puzzle without exploring the entire level. For hub structures it is much harder to do some kinds puzzles, like those having multiple solutions. If the player can solve the puzzle in the great hall without visiting any of the levels, a lot of story and gameplay might be skipped. Coming up with one puzzle that requires the contents from all levels is hard enough, so you mostly have to live with having one unique solution to these puzzles. This also puts further constraints on the obstacle, as it is not very good if the player can come up with many alternate solutions that would overcome it. In that event the obstacle will seem too artificial and immersion is broken.

Note that there can of course be sub-obstacles blocking the path for the different parts of the great hall puzzle. For example the player might need get to a golden hook from a pirate frog in the treasure chamber and this puzzle have far less restrictions. That does not take away the problem with the puzzle in the hub though.

Hopefully this has given some insight into how we (or at least I) go about creating levels and the problems with obstacles encountered.

What are your thoughts on these problems? Know any more problems that might arise or perhaps any more solutions?

Friday, July 24, 2009

Dealing with tough stuff

This is one of those posts that might conform more to the traditional weblog version of blogs (that is, a personal account or journal) than something that might suit general consumption. As I am want to write here all about difficult parenting issues (well, at least those that are fit to print), I didn't want to shy away in this post even though the subject matter is difficult. As hinted at last year, my wife's mother, my children's Grandmother Helena has been ill for sometime. She was diagnosed some time ago with breast cancer and years of treatment did not turn it around. She passed away last week.

As you can imagine, our children were prepared for this as it was some time coming. Throughout the whole process our philosophy was to set out the truth and the probabilities of recovery as we knew them throughout. Last year, it was apparent that that probability had fallen to zero. The children knew it and they knew it during the several visits to their grandmother after that. They were able and free to talk openly about it all with all and sundry and this, we think, ultimately helped them understand and work through it all.

Two bits of background. Helena was relatively young (61) but also lived in another city, Sydney. So she wasn't a part of day-to-day lives but there were regular visits. It took her a few years to work out how to be a grandmother but when she did a solid relationship, particularly with our eldest, was built up. She taught her to play chess and to knit. When she visited, she shrewdly brought enough cheap toys so there were presents each day. The relationship was cherished and we knew that her passing would be mourned.

To a great extent the mourning began a year ago when the visits stopped and the illness took over. She was no longer the same person. But my daughter still worked towards the days of old. She took over the role of knitting her niece and nephew scarves and she built a chess set for her grandmother. I was proud of the way she tried to make the best of all of this.

Inevitably, philosophical issues took hold. I recognise that for many our approach would not be their way but we were strictly of the "when you are dead you are dead" variety. And, again, by way of information, the children did not appear distressed at that notion. A pet had died before and somehow the thought of finality was consistent with their view of the world. As of today, they do not expect to see their grandmother again.

Similarly, we did not shield the two eldest from the funeral and ceremonies. My 8 year old son joined me as a pall-bearer and both of them took their place in shovelling dirt into the grave. To them, there was intense curiosity at the whole process, in particular, at the open grief from adults especially, Helena's husband and also both of her parents who outlived her.

Perhaps the major issue with something like this is that there is a need for parenting resources and attention at precisely a time when those are in scarce supply. The children's mother was understandably occupied, and away during the final weeks, and I could have used her in discussions with the children. But we had had time and so the issues that needed to be sorted out were given time (especially with the help of the whole Michael Jackson thing that provided a warm up. That said, during the precise moment I was need most immediately I was out of the country, a calculated risk at the time, and had to rush -- only took 20 hours! -- back after just one day abroad.

Helena died of breast cancer; a disease both her mother and grandmother had. You won't be surprised when I tell you that the first time I heard about it my immediate thoughts were for the my three women and girls in the direct genetic line of fire of this. But there are actually four sisters and so currently seven in total who face the high probability of this occurring during their lives. And what is more, it is of a currently unknown gene. Diligence in early detection is our treatment now but hopefully for my children, the progress of science might yield something more comforting.

To complete the story, my wife gave an outstanding eulogy for her mother. It was perhaps the best speech I had ever heard at a funeral and prior to the fact I didn't know she had it in her. I was both amazed and proud to hear it and it moved so many of the 150 people there. Perfection.

She wrote the speech out and I'm going to post it now (with permission) to complete the log of these events. Two of the children were long asleep when it was given but I hope one day they will read it and see it for what it is. It says so much about the strength of their own mother.

In celebration of our mother’s life, I’d like to talk about what Mum left behind. There is a huge Mum-shaped hole in our lives. And I think a huge Helena-shaped hole in all our lives.

I’m going to talk about three things: our memories of Mum, the values she left us with and finally the people she left behind.

We remember our mother as a wonderful and unique person. She was caring and patient when we were young and provided us with a good model for us with our children. She always wanted to hear the truth and always valued and respected our opinions. She didn’t always listen to our opinion, but she wanted to know what it was.

She wanted what was best for her children and when we were growing up there was never a dull moment. We never quite knew what was going to happen next.

I shall remember Mum every day as I read to my children, as I hear her voice in my own and see her hand when I look at mine. Those hands taught us how to tie our shoelaces and how to win at chess in three moves.

She did not suffer fools, a trait which she shared with us. Which brings me to the values she gave to us.

The strongest value she gave to us was the importance of family. She was the most doting and beloved grandmother imaginable.

She taught us the value of independence and this is an aspect that we all hold very dear.

She had a high regard for intellect, which we are passing on to our children.

Although I’m sure she did not intend it, she taught us the very importance of integrity.

Finally the people she left behind:

It’s very difficult to know how to thank the person who gave you life. Because as my 8 year-old son tells me: “there is nothing I like more than my life”. Well, actually there IS something I love more than my life and that is his life and that of his sisters. My mother gave to me the things I love and cherish most. She gave me my sisters and she by extension gave me my children. And for that I’m eternally grateful.

Harry Potter's Uneasy Relationship with Academia

Last weekend marked the launch of the 6th in the now 8 part movie saga that is Harry Potter. As is surely apparent by now, the movies sit not as a substitute for the books but a complement to them. They succeed where they can visualise magic that cannot be done in words -- the creatures, the castle and a large part of the action. But they fail where the books have their most significant: in the complex characters and the deeper moral issues.

But in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince one of those deeper but unstated moral issues arose neatly and somewhat humorously in the movie: the role of academia. It came in the form of Professor Slughorn, a marvelously imagined character who is a teacher who cares only about the best in the class and seeks them out to the exclusion of all others. He, in turn, is a character that is perhaps the most instrumentalist of at least the 'good' guys in the saga. Slughorn at various points commits self-interested acts claiming 'academic purposes.' For instance, he is caught removing valuable leaves from a plant, claiming their scientific merit but we know being motivated by the black market value.

That, however, is not where this issue comes to the fore. It is hard to describe it without giving away too much of the plot but Slughorn cites the very same 'academic' disclaimer when handing over clearly dangerous knowledge to a young Voldemort. Slughorn later clearly realises his error and attempts to cover his tracks but the message is clear: there is a danger to the academic shield.

Now I am not going to opine about that dilemma although being an economist who routinely puts research into the public domain, I have faced Slughorn's choice and have worried about it. But what is more interesting is the entire subtheme in Harry Potter of an anti-academic bias. This might seem funny with so many respected characters being affectionately and authoritatively titled 'Professor' but let's look at the evidence.

First, why is a High School education considered enough in the wizarding world. It would seem to me that having to learn magic as well as standard fare would put a greater premium on a longer period of education. Where is the secret college at Oxford that surely must come next for the academically-gifted Hermione? Can a secondary education really be enough for the career paths the students started choosing early on?

Second, dropping out of high school is something not treated with concern. Fred and George fly away on brooms out of school and into a flourishing retail business. But by the seventh book, and I am not giving too much away here, all three main characters have dropped out of school -- yes, to pursue the greater good -- but what other childrens' novels would have ever contemplated such a message?

And then finally, there is an underlying current of what all that magical knowledge is good for. Wizards know how to cure the ill, repair efficiently, and also a variety of psychological enhancements we need not go in to. But somehow, all that knowledge remains tightly held apparently to protect the Muggles from greater disruption but surely some leakage could do a world of good.

Standing back, there is an uneasiness with academia and knowledge throughout the series. But unlike other issues they remain unstated as an undercurrent. One wonders whether the apparatus of the saga could actually have been put to good use opening them up to debate.

By the way, we took all of our kids -- ages 5 - 10 -- to the latest movie. All enjoyed it. No really scary bits.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The problem with obstacles

Even though freedom is something of a buzz words these days in games, most games needs to restrict the player somehow. This is especially true for various types of adventure games where the player must be guided along a story path. In this blog post I will call these restrictions "obstacles" and will briefly discuss the various design problems connected with these.

First out I want to start out with an example of some obstacles from Penumbra. In Black Plague, after the player as managed to escape from his cell and get to the residential area, we wanted the player to search the area, find notes and solve puzzles. In order to do so we need to halt the player's progress and this was done by a door needing biometric input in order to open. To do this the player must collect some body parts and these are in turn blocked by other obstacles that need to be overcome (another locked door, corridor with gas, etc).

The big problem we have had when designing things like this is to make the obstacles seem well placed, fun and varied. Unfortunately it often boils to having some kind of locked door. And as we all know, while fitting, locked doors are not that exciting. If locked doors can not be used, what can? Below follows is a list of some different types of obstacles:
  • Object. This is things like doors, bridges or other man made things that are blocking the players path.
  • Environmental. There are obstacle that somehow limit the player movement and include holes, rivers, fires,etc.
  • Character. This is normally seen in old point and click games. Some character is blocking the players path and requires something to let the player through.
  • Enemy. A deadly creature of some sort that blocks the player path.
  • Motivation. The player character does not want to continue because of some personal issue. Perhaps the road up ahead is too dark.
  • Hidden. The path that the player needs to take is not yet visible. For example a portal that magically appears after the some condition has been satisfied.
I think these pretty much sums up all of the obstacles that are found in games. Also note that sum of these overlap, for example a robot guardian could be classified both as object or enemy.

For games like penumbra the game mechanic sets limit on what kind of obstacles that can be used. For example characters did not work because there where no real dialog system. Other games might have other kinds of limits. In some games it might not be a problem if the types of obstacles are not varied as it is part of the basic gameplay. In adventure games it is very important though, and only having one kind of obstacles (like always facing locked doors), makes the game feel repetitive and boring.

After releasing Penumbra Overture, we got some critique that the game contained too many open-locked-door obstacles and tried hard to fix this for Black Plague. The first thing we set out to do was to the skip simple locked door obstacles and if a door was needed we tried to make it interesting. In the example above we used a lock that required human parts to be opened and even though it was still a lock-and-key type of puzzles I think people considered it much more fun. The final game still contained obviously locked doors and we tried to limit this. However, we found it very hard and where not completely pleased at the end.

For Requiem we completely skipped trying to come up with interesting obstacles and instead focused on puzzles. In Requiem a portal always had to opened using some strange orbs in order to progress and this made the rest of the gameplay a lot simpler to design. At the same time it was apparent this was not good for an adventure game and player responses showed this. By using the same type of obstacle throughout the entire game a lot of the adventure feel was lost. This is especially true, like in Requiem, when obstacles are not part of the story either.

What are your thoughts on the obstacles in Penumbra? Know any game with really good or bad obstacles?

Monday, July 20, 2009

Moon shot

I was alive but I was too young to remember the first moon landing. But as I was growing up, and definitely before I turned 10, there was a sense that more was to come. A moonbase in 1999 depicted on TV seemed plausible. Casual space travel by 2001 seemed almost under-stating what could be done. Even The Economist feared Europe dropping out of having a role contributing to advancement. Yet here we are. People went to the moon and then did not return for 34 odd years and counting. I do not recall that prediction being made even if there were constant voices against the expense of all of this space travel.

This hit home as I showed my 10 year old daughter this terrific website: wechoosethemoon.org. It is tracking in 'real time' the whole moon expedition. At any point in time you can see what was going on exactly 40 years ago.

"What's this?"

"It is showing where the lunar lander is. You see, here it is in orbit around the moon. They are about to land."

"What? There are people up there now? Is that possible?"

"No, it is just showing what happened 40 years ago."

"Oh, yes. That's what I thought. We don't do this anymore."

And there you have it. It is hard to have these conversations and feel that somehow we have failed. The current generation believe what is true, that such space travel is as much as a dream as it was prior to the 1960s. I know that some will say that was all well and good given the cost. But the cost of the entire space program over that time, in today's dollars, was $176 billion. And yes, that, in retrospect was too costly. Not because of the resources it took but because the expense surely had value in knowledge created that would built up and lead to greater things. To not have reinvested on the back of that achievement was to erode the capital value of the initial expense. Almost impossible to conceive at the time, the moon landings were a short-term policy and not a serious commitment to the future. It will leave us and the next generation wondering what could have been.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Maps with s-tile

The tool guy is back with some more dirty inside secrets on the development. This post was meant to talk a bit about the Level Editor, but first I need to tell you about something you might not know... and it's called tilemapping.

The term tilemapping refers to a technique born in the mid 80's or so, back when videogames were pretty much down to 2D. These games used 2D images to represent the game world and entities in it. A 2D image is, in a nutshell, a grid of color values or pixels, with the following parameters:
  • Size in pixels (width x height): these values tell how big our image is - 64x64, 320x200, 1280x800...
  • Color depth/bits per pixel(bpp): precision used to store an individual pixel in the image - 8 bpp, 16 bpp, 24 bpp, 32 bpp. This parameter pretty much depends on the format we are using to display our image.

To understand the need for such a technique, we have to think in terms of the hardware available back in the day. We are talking about machines with veeery limited resources, i.e. real slow CPU's and quite low on memory (far from a single megabyte), so one had to be really careful and always keep an eye on those limits when developing... and even more if developing a game.
Many older 2D games out there display a quite big and detailed world where the game action takes place, and with big here I mean many times the screen (Turrican's huge maps being a real good example of this). So, let's do a simple example:
  1. Figure our system has a graphic mode with a screen size of 320x200 pixels and 8 bpp for color depth (and we are talking high tech here).
  2. Now, we want our game to have maps with a moderate size of 960x200 (that's only three times the screen width). The first solution that comes to mind is making a 960x200 drawing that represents the map. Doing the math, that is 960*200*8 bits = 960x200 bytes = 187.5 KB in memory at runtime. Not that much, I agree, but back in the day we could have limits like 256 KB in our main memory, so in this case we would have little room left for the rest of the game data (not to mention the worst and most common case would actually be having even lower limits and much higher needs)
So here's where the tilemapping technique comes in. The technique itself is rather simple: we have an array of small (e.g. 16x16, 24x24,...) images called tiles, containing all the graphic details we need in our level, plus a 2D collection of integer values (almost like an image), which would act as the actual map, indicating which tile goes where. In our example, using a moderate set of 20 different 24x24 tiles and a 20x9 sized int array, we manage to build a big enough map to fit our needs, with a cost of 20*24*24 + 20*9*2 = 11880 bytes = 11.6 KB. Now that's saving memory, don't you think? ;).

Although nowadays we have tech advanced enough to kiss tilemapping goodbye, it's still used, specially in games for small and limited devices such as cellphones and hand-held consoles. Actually,Fiend and Energetic use tilemapping for levels :)

Little 2D horror gem

The Energetic map editor, in all its glory

After having bored you all with all this seemingly pointless babble, I'll tell you how most 3D games do for levels. There are many ways of having a 3D world. Most common is creating a huge 3D model in the modeling program of choice, that is all the geometry and texture mapping done there. While this is cool, any 3D artist out there would say it is a pretty time-consuming task, and doesn't allow much reuse of stuff.

I know it looks untextured and that... but does this ring a bell?

What we are doing in Unknown is to create several sets of 3D pieces and make maps using them as building blocks. One can have a production-quality map in less than four days with this method, and thanks to the excellent job from our artists, the results are really nice to the eye as well.

Quite impressive what you can do with such simple pieces I must say... kudos to Jens

As you might have noticed, there's quite a similarity in both cases. We can make a close analogy between the big 2D drawing and the huge 3D model map, and our current mapping method to the ancient tilemapping technique, although our point is not related to saving memory really, but to save time and sanity. Still, our technique allows for more flexibility, such as going back to the "huge 3D model" totally (by creating a piece containing the whole map geometry), or partially (just a room). Also, we have a grid, but only to ease the task of aligning pieces, so we are not constrained by it.

There's little left to add really. I hope this served at the very least to give you guys a little overview on one of the most famous game development techniques that has been around for quite a lot of time, and how its basic principle can still apply to today's methods.

Just couldn't help myself

Thursday, July 16, 2009

WSJ Bloglist

While the review of Parentonomics in the Wall Street Journal was mixed, it looks like someone there likes this blog. While it didn't make the list of 25 top economics blogs, there was this:
We also left off some fun blogs, like Ecocomics or Parentonomics that are specialized and primarily focused on entertainment.
I guess that is appropriate although not everything here is that entertaining but I am happy for the mention. So to anyone new here today because of that feel free to browse although I'd be remiss not to point out that a tidier version of all that is here (pre-2007) is in the book (sans embarrassing spelling errors).

And just in case you didn't think I had a serious side, here is the link to my general economics blog. I guess I versioned myself!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Nothing will save you!

In this post the the no-save system hinted at in the previous post will be discussed by going over various systems and see how they apply to horror games. I also want to point out that as in the last post, saving means the type of save that determines where the player starts after failure (death) and not progress recording. Also note that I will, becuase of reasons found in the previous save post, consider that weak negative failure effects (like quick save) reduce the scare factor.

Death is final
This type of save can be found mostly in rogue games like Nethack and means that if you die, you will loose all progress and have to start over. Pretty much all games utilializing this system is based on random generation of levels, so when one starts over the game does not play out the same as last time. It also has a concept of levelling yourself instead of the game character meaning that by using knowledge obtained from the previous session one can make it longer in the next.

Would this kind of saving work for horror game? To my knowledge it has never been tried and I think the main reason for this is the random aspects. Horror require elaborate setups with environments, enemies and events something that is not (yet?) possible with randomly generated maps (at least one horror game use it though). The story also tends to be important in horror games and procedurally generating that at the start of each session would be quite some task.

The idea of only having one life has lots of appeal for the horror game designer, as actions made would really matter and the prospects for instilling fear are very tempting. However, the requirement of having to randomly generate content does not lend itself very well to horror games and this type of system might only be workable for some really short and experimental game.


In this system the player is teleported back to a certain spawn position upon death, often combined with some other punishment (lost of currency, experience points, etc). Some examples: In Bioshock the player is teleported without any sort of punishment and in Diablo 2 the player drops all inventory at the place of death. As seen in the two examples, the degree of punishment can differ quite a bit. The placement of spawn points also changes the amount punishment a lot.

The biggest problem with this kind of system is that unless the punishment is quite large, it is either a very accessible system (making death meaningless, like in Bioshock) or one that can lead to frustrating (like Diablo). Thus it seems like if one does not pose some large negative effect upon teleportation it is not ideal to retaining atmosphere and creating fear. However, if the punishment is too harsh it will be very hard to balance the game, for example if the ammunition is lowered too much it might be impossible for the player to progress.

Mini game
The idea of this kind of system is that the player is punished by some kind of minigame before being able to return to the normal game. Prey is one game that uses this system and forces the player to shoot a certain amount of spirits before returning to play. At first glance the basics of this system seem very solid - a player never has redo any gameplay section and is always in the game (meaning no immersion breaking).

After "dying" a few times the problems start though. Whatever mini game the player is forced to play it will always detract from the main game and will never be as fun as the "real thing". This will lead to frustration and immersion breaking. If on the other hand the mini game is very short and simple, death will (like the accessible teleportation) become too easy and scariness be lost.

Would it be possible to make a horror game where the player never dies? As discussed in an earlier post on combat, it is very possible to do so and there exist many examples of such games. All of these games build the scariness from atmosphere and use no game mechanics to inforce it. Would such mechanics be possible in a game with an immortal character though? One way to do it might be in a Sim City kind of way where ones choices will have consequences later on. If bad decisions are made the player might be put in an unwinnable state (turning into a kind of "death is final" game) or simply be denied certain plot points or items. This is highly experimental though and I know of no games where it is implemented.

A variation on the "death is final" system is to add more playable characters to the mix. If one character dies the game continues with the remaining characters until all are dead. Although it might sound very similar to the "death is final" type, there is a large difference - a death of a character might be intentional and it might even be required for all characters to die in order to complete the game. In such a game "completing" takes on a new meaning as it would require the story to branch and have multiple endings (unless each death is scripted which defeats the purpose). This could in turn lead to all sorts of exciting new gameplay and it might be possible to induce emotions like sorrow to a degree impossible in other kind of games.

As with all approaches, is it not without problems. Rebirth requires the designer to manage several outcomes out of different situations and considering one story is often hard enough, this is not an easy task. If it should be possible to always complete game, then the situations where death can happen is also limited, especially if a death needs to branch the storyline. Given an appropriate story these problems are not impossible to overcome though and might work in some kind of Cube-like setup.

Heavy Rain is supposed to have this type of system and although I have my doubts of the game, this aspect will be extremely interesting to see how it turns out.

Physical punishment
Finally one could induce real physical pain to the player upon failure. Knowing that a couple of thousand volts might be put into ones body will definitely make one extra careful when exploring. There are already games where physical pain play a part of the game and it seems to me like it would fit perfectly for a horror game. Not sure if I would like to try it though (beta testers would be harder to find for sure!).

On a more serious note, this kind of system would not be impossible to implement without hooking the player up to a torture machine. Simply displaying disturbing visual and auditory effects might act as enough punishment, but just like with mini games it might end of frustrating instead of adding to the atmosphere. I know of no games that use this but games like The Path and Punishment might be considered close.

What are your thoughts on games without saving? Do you think any of these could be used to increase the scare factor or is saving the best way for horror games? I am also interesting in hearing if I forgot to mention any systems.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

BBC World Service

You know, as an economist and especially one who is researching and thinking about serious public policy constantly, to be interviewed by the BBC World Service and access its 40 million odd sophisticated listeners would seem like a triumph to get my ideas out there.

Last night that interview took place but instead of 40 million hearing about innovation or financial reform or something like that, they heard about toilet training. Click here to listen (it is about 2/3 of the way through). And, yes, it's my own fault!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

What will save you?

Having talked about combat for a few weeks I will now move onto something else: Save systems in horror games. I will briefly discuss the various save systems available and how they affect the scare factor. But before doing that I would like to give a quick overview of goals of a save system.

Save systems come in many varieties and basically fill two functions:
  1. Record progress when the player chooses to turn off the game.
  2. To give the player some a starting point after "dying" (or what ever constitutes failure).
Note that in almost all new games the two are connected. But in many older games, the "death save" happened at the start of the level, but the progress was never saved when the game was turned off. Instead, turning off the game meant restarting. The reason for having this system is to increase difficulty in games and the place of the "save" is as such a measure of the penalty for failure. It is this penalty save (type no 2) that I will focus on in this post, and not saving as a progress recorder (type no 1) .

Now for a quick overview on the different types:

Save Anywhere
This type of save is pretty much self-explanatory - players can save whenever they want. Ever since PC's had large enough hard drives (at least Wolfenstein 3D days), this have been the de facto save system for PC gamers, and games not using it have often gotten harsh reviews because of it. One of those games is Penumbra, but I think that we did right thing to not use this save system, on the grounds that saving anywhere severely lowers the fear factor.

Our reasons for not using the save anywhere system are several. The two top reasons are:
  1. The saving becomes a part of the gameplay and breaks the mood. Unless you can work the save system seamlessly into the game world, then the immersion is broken every time the game has to be saved and less immersion will mean less fear.
  2. The fear of death becomes virtually non-existing since it is so easy to undo mistakes. Instead we want players to think before acting and not be able to save right before entering a unexplored room.
One might argue that the save anywhere feature can be combined with some other system, but the problem here is that once one start using the simpler anywhere-system it is hard to go back. Perhaps players only have themselves to blame if they turn to the other system? The problem with that is when players get really afraid, they might feel urged to use the save anywhere feature, even though they know it will break the mood. We therefore felt that it would best to force the player into playing the game like we intended it to be.

Auto Saves
Games that save without the player having to do anything are all in this category. This means that the autosave system might only save after the completion of every level or every 5 minutes.

The best thing about an auto save system is that it is completely transparent and never interfere with gameplay (at least until the player dies). This means that it is very good at keeping up the immersion. Auto saves has problems though. One major is that unless you only save after very specific events (like completing a level) it is very hard to know when to save. For example, the game should not save when the player has 1 health point left and is about to get hit by an enemy. Also, if only one save slot is used, this can lead to the player getting stuck in an unwinnable state and needs to restart the game.

To compensate for its problems, auto save is usually combined with some other kind of save system.

Save spots
What began as a storage limit on consoles, has become one an important mechanic in many horror games. Some games, like Resident Evil, even put limits on saving and further make it a part of the atmosphere. Usually save spots are accomplished by some kind of object interaction. When using something fitting for the environment (like computer terminals, typewriters, etc) this can make save spots less intruding on the immersion, but unfortunately most games insist on using some cumbersome file systems, taking the player out of the game world.

Save spots overcomes the second save anywhere problem described above and lessens the first a bit (but does not remove it). Some other problems arise though, especially if limits are imposed or spots are badly placed. The main problem is that if one dies without saving for a while there might be several frustrating of minutes of gameplay that needs to be redone. This problem exists for autosaves too, but to a lesser degree since autsaves are easier to place (but comes with other problems, as explained above).

Another problem is that even though save spot are a part of the game world and hence should lessen the immersion breaking, it might encourage the player to run to a save spot whenever some goal is achieved. This not only breaks immersion but also add a unneeded backtracking to the game and makes it a more frustrating experience than it needs to be.

Now that I have gone over the three different "death penalty" save systems used in game I would like to reflect on these by briefly discussing the saving in Penumbra.

We decided early on that we wanted to have some kind of save spot system, because we believed it would maximize the scare factors. However, we felt that we did not want to break the immersion the way most (if not all) other horror games do by adding a file system whenever the game is saved. Instead we chose to just have some kind effect upon interaction and then use a certain amount of slots that where cycled whenever the player saved. This way there would still be older (than the most recent) saves to choose from and immersion would be kept. I think this worked great and am quite surprised that I have not seen a single other game use it.

Early on we also determined that save spots would not be enough, especially if we wanted to lower the frustration of redoing and backtracking that came with the save spot system. For this reason we added auto saves and tried to save whenever something dangerous was about to happen. At first we thought about not giving any hints when the game was saved, but later on added a bright flash so that players knew they could breath out at some moments. We are still not sure if this was a good decision though and by keeping it more transparent we might have made players feel more unsafe and scared in some situations. On the other hand, some players never understood what the bright flash was about, thus being scared when entering a new area even though the game just saved.

Finally, we have been internally discussing the possibilities of skipping a save system altogether and what this would mean for the horror and immersion. A discussion about that will be for a later blog post though.

Until next time: What is your favorite save system for horror games? How did you like the system in Penumbra?

Monday, July 6, 2009

The Greatest Gift

In the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof lists the "best kids books ever." Now I am not sure what criterion he was using for his list but 'best' didn't seem to describe it. I think he was using a criterion of "books your kids can read so that their IQ does not drop over summer." With the list including The Hardy Boys and Little Lord Fauntleroy I can just imagine my kids, upon being handed these, going "gee wilakers, thanks Dad. That's swell" and asking me again why adults get all funny about the notion of a good book burning. If there is one thing I have learned about chapter books is, that unlike movies, TV shows and picture books, what you liked when you grow up rarely translates into a similar joy across generations. In Kristof's list Harry Potter stands out as the exception that proves the rule and is perhaps, indeed, one reason to have kids. I am about to give you a better one.

In his blog, Kristof sensibly asked his own kids what they would recommend. It should come as no surprised that none of his list that he had presumably subjected his kids too made the cut. Most were recent (that is, a decade old) but the top of the list was Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. Those kids have taste.

I have reviewed some other books by Snicket before (here and here). My exuberance would not have been lost on anyone. But those were a side show to the 13 volume series that I began reading to my kids about 6 months ago.

Actually, that is not true, I began reading them 5 years ago and loved it. Sadly, my eldest at 5 years old wasn't so interested and so we stopped half way through the second book. And then I waited. And waited. And waited until finally I could convince the two eldest to sit down and listen to me read it to them. Unlike Harry Potter, these were books that had to be read aloud to a kid so given that I had several I figured it was my right to force it on them.

The forced event last only a few minutes before they saw what I saw. Pretty soon they were requesting readings over watching TV and video games. But we paced ourselves with a chapter a night for 169 nights (give or take some missed for various reasons).

This is a set of books that is pretty well impossible to review because to say too much would be to give too much away. What is more, the movie starring Jim Carey (who is perfect for the role of the villain, Count Olaf) while doing the spirit of the books justice is best consumed after reading the complete wreck. So there is no luck there. You basically have to pick up The Bad Beginning and go with it.

But I would be remiss (the word "remiss" here meaning failing in my duty as an informative parenting blogger to warn about potential harm to your children) in pointing out that some people might consider this book as causing potential harm to your children. The book involves the story of the Baudelaire orphans who become orphans before the first few pages are out which, I'm sorry to say, is by far the high point for them over the entire 13 books. (And, just in case you are thinking it, they adored their parents and life so there is no twist there).

To say that their lives were unfortunate is really to stretch the meaning of the word unfortunate away from its usually comforting nuance. Disastrous is another word that might describe their lives if it was true that the disasters were, in fact, the most painful experiences they go through. They are not. If I had to point to anything it would be the naked exposition and confrontation with the realistic bitter truths about people that will likely cause the most horror. For adults, we will recognise them in our own day-to-day experiences usually involving someone at the end of a telephone line in "billing" before the days where they were a pleasant but more empathic person who grew up in far less fortunate circumstances than yours. But for children, they are a window into the lives that follow and the perplexities they face now in understanding human behaviour will likely never retreat and they will live forever in their grip.

So consider yourselves warned but also recognise that these books, their genius and their relentless consistency will be among the more satisfying reading experiences of your parenthood. Get them now and read it out loud before it is too late. Also, ask some French person how to pronounce 'Baudelaire.' I apparently mispronounced it for 13 books.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

What's the deal with 3D?

The first 3D movie I saw was actually a Michael Jackson movie at Disneyland. It was a traditional 3D movie which was shameless in its ability to use the third dimension with objects you felt you could touch or something protruding right at you. It was a gimmick but that has its time and place.

These days, all manner of kids' animated movies are 3D. I had skilfully avoided them until today when we saw Ice Age 3 in 3D. 3D movies like this are the big hope of cinemas because they are a reason to go to the cinema rather than wait until the movie comes out on DVD or what have you. I'm not sure of that but, let's go with the idea that you have to be in a cinema. Will it work?

Well, for starters, it is a disaster for younger kids. My 4 year old just didn't want to wear the bulky glasses let alone be scared by the third dimension. They didn't provide smaller ones so she watched a movie in blurred vision; which wasn't much fun. For myself, I have glasses on already and so a full length movie in 3D doubles the smug impact or glare or any number of annoyances. For that I want the 3D to be doing something. In Ice Age, it just didn't and I was just annoyed at the whole experience. The remaining children seemed non-fussed about it all but felt it was hardly any difference. Certainly not worth the bump in ticket price.

So I guess the recommendation is the shun the 3D cinemas and find normal 2D ones. From the look of the opening weekend crowd in our cinema, other parents had already decided that and it was only 10 percent full. Contrast this with a full house for the non-3D Hannah Montana.

As for the movie itself, it isn't awful but doesn't come anywhere near the original. All the more reason to wait for DVD or broadcast television on this one.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

A History of violence. Part 3

In this blog post I will focus an underused combat mechanic: Chase Sequences. This type of "combat" is very common in horror movies, but quite rare in horror games. I will briefly discuss how we used it in Penumbra, problems it causes and how some other games have implemented it.

In Penumbra we used chase sequences on three occasions in the entire series and and each time it was a highly scripted event. There was always little room for the player to move in and mostly a very clear path. The first two chase sequences were in Overture and both involved being chased by a giant worm. In both of these the player had to complete a specific obstacle along the way and failure resulted in death and a restart of the chase. While a lot of people said that they liked this, a large amount also disliked this portion of the game because of its trial and error nature.

In Black Plague the chase sequence was a bit different. Here the player had more space to move about in, the goal was not as clear and we also deliberately tried messing with the player's head. The Overture chase sequences focused more on creating fear, while this had a larger focus on confusing and disturbing the player. Like the worm chases, some players really liked the sequence while other did not liked it all. Here the problem was that some people did not found the right way quick enough and the terror experienced was transformed into frustration.

The reason for people not liking the chase sequence is pretty much the same in both of the above instances, and probably also the main reason why this type of combat is so underused: It requires a very scripted environment, has a very strong trial-and-error feel and loses much of its impact and fun-factor after the first try. In order for it to be entertaining, the player must not repeat the sequences too much.

Some example from other games with chase sequences includes Clock Tower and Beyond Good and Evil (which is not a horror game though).

In Clock Tower chase sequences replace normal combat to a certain degree. When an enemy appears, the player must either hide or escape by using scripted interactions with the environment (throwing plants, etc). This is probably the most fateful adaption horror-movie chases I have played in a game, but it comes with lots issues. First of all, the chases loose their appeal very quickly as there is no real reward for avoiding the enemies, so enemies become more of a chore as the game progresses. Also, to avoid players from repeating hiding/avoidance patterns hiding places and offensive environment pieces stop working after some uses, sometimes making it very hard to escape an enemy and leaving one running around in circles trying to avoid the threat. More problems exist, but to sum it up the main problem is that it is very hard to keep this kind of generic chasing interesting and it is therefore not a very good mechanic.

Beyond Good and Evil's chase sequences are very scripted and at times similar to quick-time events. The sequences are also very much based on trial and error, but have very frequent check points removing some of the frustration. The chases are quite rare too, so they never get too annoying and always seem fresh. They can still get very frustrating though, and like the chases in Penumbra, enjoyment depends on how many tries it takes to complete them.

Finally, a Silent Hill 1 remake is going to be based around some kind of scripted quick time chases instead of combat. It will be interesting to see how this turns out and how they will manage to keep the chases from becoming frustrating trial and error based Dragon's Lair like gameplay. Judging from previous chase sequences in games, it seems like a risky decision, but it is always fun that developers dare to try new things.

What is your take on chase gameplay? Did you find the penumbra chase sequences fun or just frustrating?